What Does It Mean to Be Free?

I have discovered the joys of audiobooks in recent months. As a scholar who just finished my dissertation and a teacher with three preps this semester, I don’t have a lot of leisure time to sit down with a good novel to savor on a rainy day. However, with audiobooks, I can get a few hours in each day while I walk to school, workout, or do my chores at home. So it was on audiobook that I read/listened to Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom (how else could I finish such a book and write a dissertation?). It is a different experience, to be sure, but the narration of Freedom by David LeDoux is outstanding, so if you are hesitant to plunge into such a novel, this could be your solution.

Freedom is doubtlessly trying to be the American novel, although David Brooks says it is trying to say more about America’s literary culture than America itself:

If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones. . . There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.

I’m not so sure. The disenchanted suburbanites at the heart of the tale ring very true insofar as we view them through the central lens of the novel—are they free? We are left asking ourselves at throughout, “What does it mean to be free?”

I ask this to my students in ethics and inevitably get the same answer: “The ability to do what you want without anyone stopping you.” Of course, that answer gets specified with some prodding. “Surely,” I say, “you don’t mean anything. What about murder/rape/stealing.” But the answer is still always a little distasteful. Freedom, most people seem to think, is the ability to do whatever you want so long as nobody gets hurt, basically a primitive version of Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty.

What Franzen so artfully and painfully realistically illustrates is that such a freedom does not exist. His characters are frail, morally weak but not a bad-intentioned bunch that cannot seem to stop hurting one another. What’s even more painful to witness (or listen to, in my case) is their failure to find happiness either. Take the following quote from Patty Berglund, one of the novel’s protagonists. She’s married to Walter whom she loves but who also does not satisfy her and she is in love with Richard, the rockstar crush from her college days and her husband’s best friend. Richard and Patty, of course, sleep together, something Walter is not meant to find out, but, of course, does later in the novel:

Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.

Patty has it all indeed. She wants to be a stay-at-home mom, and she gets her wish. She wants a house and she gets a gem. She wants two kids, a boy and a girl, and she gets them. Walter does not satisfy her sexually, largely because she lusts after Richard, but this is not a story with tragedy. Patty is no Mr. Rochester, for example, stuck in a loveless marriage with a lunatic and unable to be with the woman he loves because she will not compromise her moral standards.

So is Patty free? The question really needs to be, “Free for what?” One of Servais Pinckaers’ big contributions to moral theology was his distinction between freedom of indifference and freedom for excellence. The former is a teleological understanding of freedom in which one’s freedom is defined as the ability to become the person you really want to be, the person you are really called to be. This is a freedom that develops through one’s choices, not a freedom that is either automatically assumed or granted. It is a freedom that presupposes virtue.

Rich Mullins describes this concept beautifully in his (not quite his best) song “Higher Education:”

What does it mean to be human? I cannot help but believe that it means we are spiritual – that we are responsible and that we are free – that we are responsible to be free.

Franzen’s novel shows us convincingly that such a freedom is missing from contemporary American culture, largely because we have lost a sense of common morality, but also because we have lost a sense of common goals and a common good. Walter, the most morally sanctimonious character, fights moral battles over a songbird for which he is willing to almost literally sell his soul, collaborating with a wealthy Republican oil tycoon in the support of mountain top removal in order to create a safe haven for the birds. Morality is seen as a series of trade-offs, a bunch of deals with the devil in order to get something good accomplished. The characters seemed trapped, but not by anything external. They seem trapped by their own directionlessness, their own floundering, their own inability to see beyond themselves. The novel itself reflects this. It too is directionless, and even in its finely-crafted style, it flounders. I think this is intentional. The author wants his readers to feel in reading what his characters feel in living.

And this, it seems, is the crux of freedom. If Pinckaers is right and if freedom is teleological, its exercise is dependent on a telos outside ourselves, a recognition of something higher, as Rich Mullins says: “What does it mean to be human? I cannot help but suspect that at one time in the history of thinking that people believed that it meant that we were spiritual and that we could make choices and were capable of aspiring to higher ideals… like maybe loyalty or maybe faith… or maybe even love.”

Religion is almost completely absent from the book, save for a few cultural Jewish moments, and a half-hearted jab at an evangelical neighbor. The characters are too enlightened for faith. But it is perhaps this enlightened anti-theism which is the biggest thing keeping them from being free. They have only themselves to look to, and they are too frail to provide any direction. It is not the frailness that is a problem, but the lack of hope for redemption. The novel ends with a whimper, a whimper that comes from the imprisoned finally acknowledging the bars around them, and deciding to make the best of it. Are they free? I think not.

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